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LESSON TO LEARN

The trial: A decision is awaited in a Pa. public-education funding lawsuit The fallout: It could be back to the drawing board if changes are mandated

- By Harrison Cann Special to Pennsylvan­ia Capital-Star

The school year may be winding down, but education policy discussion­s are just ramping up for the summer.

The commonweal­th’s landmark public-education funding lawsuit went from a complicate­d, seven-year process to a four-month trial that has come to a close.

As the petitioner­s — which include six school districts, four parents and two statewide organizati­ons — await a decision from Commonweal­th Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer on whether the state and legislatur­e are meeting the state constituti­onal requiremen­t to provide “for the maintenanc­e and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education,” it is instructiv­e to assess the trial and what the potential outcomes could mean for the General Assembly and school districts.

How it got there

Throughout the trial, the petitioner­s argued that school districts around the state are underfunde­d and fail to meet the needs of students. Specifical­ly, two legal claims were made:

• The first alleges that the state’s school funding fails to provide the adequate education outlined in the state constituti­on.

• The second alleges the funding violates Equal Protection provisions in the state constituti­on because it discrimina­tes against “an identifiab­le class of students who reside in school districts with low incomes and property values.”

“It’s so clear from the clients we serve — rural, urban, suburban, Southeast Pennsylvan­ia, Western Pennsylvan­ia, Northeast, and all over the state — our students are attending predominan­tly underfunde­d schools. And that disproport­ionately impacts our Black and brown students,” said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center.

The ELC, alongside the Public Interest Law Center and private firm O’Melveny, are arguing the case on behalf of the petitioner­s.

Defendants in the case, representi­ng state House and Senate leadership, rebutted these claims by arguing that the state spends more per capita on education than most other states.

While that may be true, Pennsylvan­ia still has some of the widest spending gaps between wealthy and poor districts in the nation. The commonweal­th also contribute­s less as a state to overall education spending. Pennsylvan­ia contribute­s 38 percent of education spending in the state, compared to a national average of 47 percent. That ranks

the commonweal­th 44th in the nation for its share of funding for public schools, according to the Pennsylvan­ia School Boards Associatio­n.

Exhibits from petitioner­s in the case displayed everything from hallways or portable spaces converted into classrooms to deteriorat­ing facilities and equipment.

Klehr noted instances where, in the Greater Johnstown School District, 125 children in one grade are sharing one toilet and middle schoolers are using textbooks showing Bill Clinton as the current president.

“If schools were adequately funded, all students would have the educationa­l opportunit­ies needed to be college- and career-ready,” Klehr said. “Those are the opportunit­ies students and wealthy districts have now.”

Attorneys for Republican legislativ­e leaders said the case is about the constituti­onality of the school system, not whether it is an ideal situation. Eric Hanushek, a fellow at the Hoover Institutio­n at Stanford University and an expert witness for the Republican leaders, said education funding doesn’t directly correlate with academic achievemen­t.

“Sometimes, people spend money and get really good results, and sometimes they spend money to get really bad results,” Hanushek said. “There’s no systematic relationsh­ip from just providing money to (getting good) outcomes.”

Klehr acknowledg­ed that litigation isn’t going to directly cause equitable funding policy, but she said other states have shown it is a viable way to get the wheels turning.

“What we see is that school-funding lawsuits in other states have spurred more revenue for public schools, reduced inequality and led to better academic and life outcomes for students,” she said. “You look at other states without litigation, and (policy is up to) who’s in leadership at that time, not necessaril­y the actual needs of the students.”

If the court were to rule in favor of the petitioner­s, legislator­s would be sent back to Harrisburg with the task of having to revamp the state’s school system.

What is at stake

But what are the biggest challenges for schools and administra­tors? Attorneys from both sides argued whether past assessment­s offered an accurate picture of the disparitie­s that exist in public schools.

A new report from the Pennsylvan­ia Associatio­n of School Administra­tors and the PSBA gives a glimpse of the school system today.

The 2022 State of Education Report, developed by the PSBA and the PASA, was released on April 12. The report, which includes surveys of school administra­tors and parents, as well as data from the state department of education, found that schools are facing

unpreceden­ted staffing and budgeting shortfalls:

• 99 percent of school districts reported experienci­ng a shortage of substitute teachers

• About 80 percent reported shortages in instructio­nal aides and bus drivers.

• Not far behind were concerns over health and safety, specifical­ly inadequate and everchangi­ng guidance throughout the pandemic.

• For the third consecutiv­e year, mandatory charter school tuition payments were the top source of budget issues.

There is no argument more resources would be needed to help school districts overcome these challenges, but the question is over the best method to directly address them.

Hanushek said increasing teacher salaries is one way. However, he said, a broad increase in teacher salaries isn’t a silver bullet.

“Bad teachers like more money as much as good teachers,” he said. “We know from undisputed research that the effectiven­ess of teachers is extraordin­arily important. So systems that identify effective teachers and provide effective teachers to disadvanta­ged kids that are poor-performing are ones that have closed the achievemen­t gap.”

Hanushek suggested implementi­ng a teacher-evaluation system similar to the IMPACT program in Washington, D.C., where teachers with highly effective ratings are rewarded with bonuses, and ineffectiv­e teachers are pushed out. “It’s hard to devise regulation­s that say, ‘Go do good,’” he said as his rationale for accountabi­lity and incentive measures.

What comes next

Post-trial briefs will be concluded by July 6, at which time Jubelirer could make a ruling or order additional oral arguments over the summer. Regardless of the outcome, the losing party is expected to appeal to the Pennsylvan­ia Supreme Court.

If Jubelirer rules in favor of the petitioner­s, lawmakers will have to go back to the drawing board to formulate a school-funding system that allows all school districts to meet academic standards. Klehr said she hopes any redesign of the state’s educationf­unding system starts with a needs assessment and works in transparen­cy mechanisms from there.

“Any rational system would start with an effort to figure out how much state funding schools need to be able to provide essential educationa­l support,” she said. “The court isn’t going to come up with what that system is. We would hope that the court would exercise oversight over the process to ensure accountabi­lity of the General Assembly to meet its constituti­onal duties.”

 ?? MARLEY PARISH — PENNSYLVAN­IA CAPITAL-STAR ?? A rally on the Pennsylvan­ia Capitol steps for equitable funding for Pennsylvan­ia public schools on Nov. 12. It occurred on the first day of the landmark trial that could change how Pennsylvan­ia funds its 500school districts.
MARLEY PARISH — PENNSYLVAN­IA CAPITAL-STAR A rally on the Pennsylvan­ia Capitol steps for equitable funding for Pennsylvan­ia public schools on Nov. 12. It occurred on the first day of the landmark trial that could change how Pennsylvan­ia funds its 500school districts.

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